Medieval manuscripts blog

247 posts categorized "Decoration"

13 January 2021

Over 4,500 manuscripts now online

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Long-term readers of our blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in July 2020. With the arrival of the New Year and the beginning of a new lockdown in the UK, we are releasing an update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for readers and researchers to explore our amazing digitised treasures online.

A detail from a 16th-century grant of arms, showing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick within a letter O.
A historiated initial ‘O’(mnibus) containing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick (b. c. 1510, d. 1584), Officer of Arms of the College of Arms, London: Add MS 89166, f. 1r detail

There are now over 4,500 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of January 2021:

PDF: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021
Excel: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

The upper cover of the Basikilon Doron, an autograph manuscript of the text with a purple velvet binding.
The velvet binding of the autograph manuscript of the Basilikon Doron, handwritten by King James I: Royal MS 18 B XV, upper cover.

During this period of terrible uncertainty, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available for our readers online. Over the last 6 months alone, we have published over 850 items, from medieval and early modern codices and rolls to Greek papyri and ostraca. All the images featured in this blogpost are from collection items that we have digitised since June 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions:

PDF: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021
Excel: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021(this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms
A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms: Harley MS 6563, f. 53v

Over the last months, some 620 Greek papyri have been published online, spanning from the 3rd century BC to the early 8th century. These include pieces of Greek literature, such as the famous ‘Harris Homer Codex’, an 1800-year-old manuscript preserving portions of Homer’s Iliad, as well as hundreds of fascinating documents, such as letters of parents to their children, managers and employees, magical charms and shopping lists. You can view this video for a short introduction to cataloguing the Greek papyri.

Thanks to a collaboration with the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, more than 250 inscribed pottery sherds (ostraca) from the 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD are now available online for the first time. A short overview is presented in our previous blogpost on ostraca.

A framed papyrus, featuring the text of Book II of Homer's Iliad.
The first frame of the ‘Harris Homer Codex’, containing Homer’s Iliad, Bk. II, ll. 101-149: Papyrus 126 (1) recto.

In September, we reported on the progress of a major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. This collaborative project, involving teams across the British Library, intends to publish approximately 600 Tudor and Stuart manuscripts online. The selection encompasses original letters by members of the Elizabethan court; literary manuscripts of the works of important Elizabeth and Jacobean poets such as John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney; notes by the alchemist and astronomer John Dee; and collections of state papers that highlight numerous aspects of the political and social history of this period, particularly the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. As of the start of this year, over a quarter of these manuscripts have now been published.

A letter from Queen Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, bearing her signature.
An original letter from Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, her ambassador in Scotland, concerning the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, dated 27 July 1567: Add MS 88966, f. 1r

Since this summer, two particularly significant manuscripts have been digitised, both of which can be explored in their entirety on the British Library’s new Universal Viewer. The Sherborne Missal, acquired by the British Library in 1998, has been called the ‘unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), with each of its hundreds of pages replete with astonishing illumination. Readers can learn more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost. The volume was also recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s Moving Pictures programme.

A miniature of the Crucifixion from the Sherborne Missal
The Crucifixion, from the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 380

Meanwhile in November, the British Library acquired and digitised the most important surviving manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon, a highly influential mathematician, theologian and astronomer, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London towards the end of the reign of Richard III (r. 1483-1485). The volume contains the most complete collection of his astronomical and mathematical works, including texts that are unattested elsewhere, as well as its original medieval binding and an unparalleled series of astronomical tables and diagrams. Learn more in our earlier blogpost on the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript.

Astronomical tables and diagrams from the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript
Astronomical tables and diagrams from an autograph manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon: Add MS 89442, pp. 30-31.

Many images of our manuscripts are also available to view and download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines
A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines: Harley MS 3450, ff. 5v-6r

Enormous thanks to all the members of staff across the Library whose hard work has made these achievements possible despite the difficult circumstances this year.

We wish all our readers a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy exploring our digitised collections!

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24 December 2020

The ox and ass at the Nativity

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Picture a traditional Nativity scene. The Christ Child is at the centre with his parents, Mary and Joseph, surrounded by a host of familiar characters who played a role in the unfolding events. There are angels, shepherds, the Three Wise Men or Magi (although they can be in a separate scene of the Epiphany), the innkeeper, sometimes even midwives, and, of course the ox and the ass.

The Holy Family with the ox and ass in a Book of Hours
The Holy Family with the ox and ass in a Book of Hours, France, Tours, 1510 – 1520: Add MS 35214, f. 52v

Images of the Nativity in medieval manuscripts also tend to contain some of these familiar characters. Yet after the three members of the Holy Family, the most frequently depicted are the ox and the ass. This is rather surprising as they are not mentioned in the Gospels, but they are one of the most ancient and stable elements in the iconography of the Nativity.

The earliest surviving text mentioning their presence dates from the 8th century (the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which was not included in the New Testament). However, the first known example of a Nativity scene in art, a carving on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan dated to AD 400, contains just Christ in the manger with the ox and ass on either side; Mary and Joseph are absent.

Nativity scene on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan
Nativity scene on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan, AD 400 (Giovanni Dall'Orto / Attribution only license / Wikimedia Commons)

One of the oldest medieval images of the Nativity in our collections contains a friendly-looking ox and ass, watching over Jesus in a rather elaborate crib, hidden in a corner beneath Mary, who takes centre stage. The midwife and Joseph appear to the right (midwives are found most often in earlier images but gradually disappeared from the iconography). This elaborate and stylised miniature is from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, a manuscript made in Winchester in the 10th century.

Nativity in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold
Nativity in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Winchester, 963-984: Add MS 49598, f. 15v

The ox and ass (or donkey) remained prominent features of Nativity scenes, often found alongside the Christ child. In this image below Christ is placed above Mary in a raised manger and the animals appear to have their noses in the manger where Jesus lies. Some commentators have interpreted this as a kind act by the animals, breathing on the baby to keep him warm, while for others the animals are feeding from the manger, referring to the passage in the Gospel of John, where Christ calls himself ‘the bread of life’ and promises eternal life to those who feed on him.

Scene of the Nativity in an architectural setting with the ox and ass at the manger from Germany
Scene of the Nativity in an architectural setting with the ox and ass at the manger, Germany (Swabia, possibly Hirsau): Egerton MS 809, f. 1v

A charming domestic scene in a Book of Hours in French (below) shows Mary reading or saying her prayers, while Joseph seems to watch her in bemusement (though his head-in-hand pose may denote that he is tired or sleeping). Both seem unaware that the baby Jesus, again at some distance, apparently has his hand in the donkey’s mouth. Of the two animals, the donkey is often seen as more playful, and so perhaps he is allowing the baby to prod him, while the ox (traditionally a sacrificial animal in the Bible) was seen by early Christians as symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice, so he is often shown as the more serious of the two.

Nativity with Ox and Ass in a Book of Hours
Nativity with Ox and Ass in a Book of Hours, France,  1400-1425: Harley MS 2952, f. 142v

In the 14th century, St Briget of Sweden’s vision of the Nativity had a major influence on subsequent iconography. She described seeing the ox and the ass and the Virgin kneeling before a ‘glorious infant lying on the earth, naked and glowing’ with ‘ineffable light and splendour’. And so images of Christ lying naked, worshipped by Mary (and sometimes Joseph) became common in devotional manuscripts. The ox and ass are never too far away, a benevolent presence, Christ’s first playmates.

Nativity Scene with the Holy Family, animals and shepherds with musical instruments
Nativity Scene with the Holy Family, animals and shepherds with musical instruments, Sept articles de la foy, France (Rouen), c. 1440: Royal MS 19 A XXII, f. 4v
Nativity with Mary kneeling, Joseph sleeping, and a cuddly ox and ass
Nativity with Mary kneeling, Joseph sleeping, and a cuddly ox and ass, in Eusebius, Chronici canones (trans. Jerome), Italy (Rome), c. 1485- c. 1488: Royal MS 14 C III, f. 119v

A page from the Hours of the Virgin in the Tilliot Hours contains an unusual two-part image where the ox and ass are present in both scenes. The lower image shows Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary arriving at the inn, leading a tired-looking donkey which has been carrying Mary in a saddle, followed by the ox. They are greeted by an inkeeper who in this telling of the tale is a woman. In the Nativity scene above, the ox has his nose to the manger, joining in the adoration of the Christ Child, while the donkey looks on from behind.

Nativity scene in two parts with shepherds above and Mary and Joseph arriving at the inn (below), from 'The Tilliot Hours
Nativity scene in two parts with shepherds (above) and Mary and Joseph arriving at the inn (below), in The Tilliot Hours, France (Tours), c. 1500: Yates Thompson MS 5, f. 41v

A picture of the two animals beside a baby in a manger is the simplest and most easily recognisable symbol of the Nativity. An example of this is a set of representations of key events in a medieval almanac. Each event is depicted with the number of years since it occurred, and, following the Ark (4308 years ago), is a simplistic drawing of an ox and ass on either side of a Christ in a crib. The animals make it obvious to the viewer that this is not just any baby, but Christ at his Nativity and so we know that the almanac was produced 1412 years after the birth of Christ, around the year 1412.

Illustrated almanac showing the number of years since key events in history including the Birth of Christ
Illustrated almanac showing the number of years since key events in history including the Birth of Christ (1412 years previously), England, 1400-1412: Harley MS 2332, f. 20v

And lastly, in this rather worrying scene the Christ Child seems to be trying to leap out of the manger. The donkey is holding him back by grasping his swaddling garments with its teeth. Again, Mary and Joseph are oblivious, though the ox watches in horror.

A Nativity scene with musicians in the four corners, from the Maastricht Hours
A Nativity scene with musicians in the four corners, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century: Stowe MS 17, f. 15v

Whether symbols, playmates, transport or babysitters, it certainly seems that the ox and the ass were useful characters at the Nativity.

Chantry Westwell

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17 November 2020

Announcing the Acquisition of the Lucas Psalter

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We announce today the British Library’s acquisition of the Lucas Psalter, which was made in Bruges for an English patron in the 1480s, at a time when such luxury Flemish books were sought after by English owners.

A page from the Lucas Psalter with a decorated floral border and a coat of arms at the bottom
A page from the Lucas Psalter with a decorated floral border and a coat of arms

The manuscript is a deluxe Psalter, including the book of the Psalms and other devotional material, such as a calendar and lists of hymns appropriate to various Sunday services throughout the liturgical year. The book has 183 folios, is of large format (305 x 205mm), and is written in a Gothic textura script, presented in two columns. This type of script was more usual in England than the bȃtarde or rotunda scripts used on the Continent. Taken together, the layout and size of the volume more generally suggest that it was intended as a lectern book rather than one for private devotion. It may originally have been intended to form part of a Breviary, which includes the texts necessary to celebrate the various services of the Divine Office throughout the day.

The manuscript was acquired by Thomas Houchon Lucas (1460-1539) of Suffolk, the secretary to Jasper Tudor and Solicitor General under Henry VII. Lucas is identified by the added arms in the manuscript of Lucas and Morieux quarterly, and of these arms impaling Kemys of Monmouthshire. This identifies the owners of the manuscript for whom these arms were added as Thomas Houchon Lucas and his wife Elizabeth Kemys (d. by August 1528) who married in 1486 (or 1489). The manuscript remained in the family and has the bookplate of Thomas Philip Earl de Grey of Wrest Park (1781-1859) inside the upper cover. Thomas Philip succeeded to the titles 2nd Earl de Grey and 6th Baron Lucas of Crudwell in 1833.

Detail of the coat of arms of Lucas and Morieux quarterly in the Lucas Psalter
Detail of the coat of arms of Lucas and Morieux quarterly in the Lucas Psalter

The manuscript has a contemporary 15th-century binding of red velvet over wooden boards, with metal bosses at the four corners and in the centre of both covers, and corner pieces in unusual shapes with bird head terminals. Although worn in places, the bosses have protected the velvet and accordingly much of the red velvet is remarkably well preserved given its age. The binding may have been added in London shortly after the book was produced.

The Lucas Psalter binding of red velvet with metal bosses at the corners
The Lucas Psalter, with its 15th-century binding of red velvet with metal bosses

We plan to digitise the manuscript and will publish a further blog with more details about the manuscript and its artist, the Master of Edward IV, when it is available on the Digitised Manuscripts website. You can read more about the manuscript in the British Library’s press release.

The Lucas Psalter was purchased by the British Library with the generous assistance of donations from Art Fund, the Bernard H. Breslauer Fund of the American Trust for the British Library and the British Library Collections Trust.

Kathleen Doyle

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12 November 2020

Ottonian imperial style in Echternach Gospel-books

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After the break-up of Charlemagne’s empire, his heirs continued his policy of patronising and commissioning great works of art.  The king of East Francia, Otto I (d. 973), revived Charlemagne’s title of Holy Roman Emperor in 962, and together with his son and grandson (also Ottos) gave his name to a monumental, imperial artistic style now known as Ottonian art.  These emperors and their Salian successors (a subgroup of Franks from the Lower Rhine area), Conrad II (r. 1024-39), and Henry III (r. 1039-56) commissioned some of the finest illuminated Gospel-books ever made.

A small but incredibly lavish group of these manuscripts were produced at the wealthy Benedictine Abbey of St Willibrord in Echternach, in modern day Luxembourg, 16 kilometres (10 miles) from Trier.  These include two manuscripts now in the British Library, one in the Harley collection (Harley MS 2821) and one in the Egerton collection (Egerton MS 608).

‘Carpet’ page, resembling a textile, with a central medallion of a lion and four corner medallions of birds
A patterned page with a lion and four birds before the opening of St Luke’s Gospel: Harley MS 2821, f. 99r

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Harley Echternach Gospels is their use of fictive textiles as decoration, including facing pages painted to resemble silk before the individual Gospels.  In many Echternach manuscripts the patterns are monochrome or in varying shades of the same colour, and include animals familiar from Byzantine silks, often in facing or opposing pairs.  In the Harley example the patterns are more colourful and centralized, and resemble the patterns of Late Antique weaving or mosaic floors. 

These decorative pages may serve to make the opening of the Gospel text a more revelatory event.  In this sense they may be similar to the actual silk curtains remaining in some manuscripts which can be lifted to view individual miniatures, such as those in the Arnstein Bible which we blogged about previously. 

Evangelist portrait of St Mark holding a book and blessing, with his symbol of a lion above, and opposite, the Nativity with the animals and the Christ Child, the Virgin and St Joseph below
Miniatures of St Mark the Evangelist and the Nativity before the opening of St Mark’s Gospel: Harley MS 2821, ff. 67v-68r

In addition to their independent use as carpet pages, the textile patterns are used as marginal decoration for the first time in the Echternach Gospel-books (Nordenfalk, Codex (1971), p. 98).  This is seen, for example, in the full border around the Evangelist portrait of St Mark and the facing depiction of the Nativity. 

The painting of the figures is also highly stylised, using jewel-like vibrant colours.  In content they are indebted to earlier models, with some innovations.  For example, according to tradition, St Mark established the Church in Alexandria and was the first bishop there; in the Harley Echternach Gospels, he wears a chasuble, or outer vestment of a bishop, and he makes a gesture of blessing.  This contrasts with the more typical portraits in which the Evangelists are depicted in the act of writing out their texts. 

Opposite each of the Evangelists in the Harley Echternach Gospels is a full-page scene, reflecting four important episodes arranged in chronological order: the Annunciation faces St Matthew; the Nativity, St Mark; the Crucifixion, St Luke; and the Ascension, St John.  This selection may result from the contraction of a much longer narrative cycle that appears in three of the surviving Echternach Gospel-books. 

Evangelist portrait of St Mark holding a book and blessing, with his symbol of a lion above, and opposite, the Nativity with the animals and the Christ Child, the Virgin and St Joseph below
Evangelist portrait of St Mark and a miniature of the Nativity, before the Gospel of Mark: Egerton MS 608, ff. 59v-60r

The Echternach Gospel-book in the Egerton collection has been digitised recently as part of The Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France 700-1200 project.  The similarities in composition, content and style with the Harley Echternach Gospels are immediately apparent.  For example, the Evangelist portrait of St Mark also depicts him seated frontally, holding a book on his lap and making a gesture of blessing.  His chair features dog-head and feet terminals, and St Mark is flanked by columns and curtains, with his symbol of the lion above.  Opposite, the Nativity scene parallels the two-level composition in an enclosed architectural space, with the Child and animals above St Joseph and the Virgin. 

Oak front cover with a hollow in the centre
Original oak board of the upper cover: Egerton MS 608

The Egerton Echternach Gospels is a slightly smaller book and doesn’t include the patterned textile margins that are so prominent a feature of the more elaborate Echternach Gospel-books.  However, it retains its thick original oak binding, with a hollow in the front cover.  Originally it is likely that this space was filled with an ivory or metalwork plaque, and perhaps relics, indicating the importance and status of this still lavish Gospel-book. 

Kathleen Doyle

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Further reading

Carl Nordenfalk, Codex Caesareus Upsaliensis: An Echternach Gospel-Book of the Eleventh Century (Stockholm, 1971). 

Henry Mayr-Harting, Ottonian Book Illumination: A Historical Study, 2nd edition (London, 1999), pp. 186-205.


Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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29 October 2020

Byland Abbey ghost stories: a guide to medieval ghosts

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On an overcast day in October, the ruins of Byland Abbey in North Yorkshire seem just the place to meet a medieval ghost. Nestled beneath the towering crags of Sutton Bank, the crumbled walls are pensive with memories and secrets. The dramatic outline of a rose window gapes into the sky as though crying out from a past long distant but not wholly dead. Fittingly enough, it was here that a monk wrote down one of the most important collections of ghost stories to survive from medieval Europe.

A photograph of the ruins of Byland Abbey
The ruins of Byland Abbey, North Yorkshire, photo by Eleanor Jackson

The stories, twelve in total, were written in the early 15th century on the blank pages of a manuscript containing a collection of rhetorical and theological works, now British Library Royal MS 15 A XX (ff. 140v-143 and ff. 163v-164v). Despite being written in Latin, the language of the Church, the stories are mostly set among the rural communities of North Yorkshire. They are full of references to real local places, names of people and everyday details. Their clear local roots and lack of narrative structure gives them the feeling of folktales and hearsay.

A Latin edition of the stories was published by the great manuscript scholar and horror writer M.R. James in 1922, and English translations are available by A.J. Grant (1924), and Saint Anselm College (2014). But for anyone who hasn’t time to read the stories in full (or doesn’t dare), we’ve condensed the key points into this helpful guide to medieval ghosts. Perhaps it will come in handy this Halloween...

Medieval manuscript page written with ghost stories from Byland Abbey
A page from the Byland Abbey ghost stories, early 15th century: Royal MS 15 A XX, f. 141r

What are medieval ghosts?

The ghosts in the Byland stories are not the evil forces which seek to harm humanity in many modern horror tales. They are mostly people from the community who have died without confessing sins, righting wrongs or otherwise preparing for a ‘good death’. The ghosts cannot get to heaven until these issues have been resolved, so they rise from their graves to seek help from the living.

An illustration in a medieval manuscript of a man, lying in bed, being speared by the figure of Death, accompanied by a monk and Christ
An illustration of a medieval ‘good death’. A man in bed is struck by the figure of death, while a monk at his side urges him to ‘pray Christ thy soule to save’, and Christ promises ‘mercie thou shall have’. The Carthusian Miscellany, England (Yorkshire or Lincolnshire), 1460-1500: Add MS 37049, f. 38v

The sins in question tend to be relatively mundane. Story IX tells of a ghost whose crime is ‘a matter of a sixpence’. In Story VI, the ghost of a canon of Newburgh Priory is tormented for stealing silver spoons. In Story VII, a hired hand is punished for overindulging his oxen, feeding them on his master’s corn and letting them plough the land too shallowly.

The ghosts try a variety of tactics for persuading people to help. Story I tells of an enterprising ghost in the area of Rievaulx who helps carry a sack of beans in return for absolution. In Story III, the rather forlorn ghost of Robert of Kilburn wanders around the village at night, standing at windows and doors, waiting to see if anyone would come out and help. Eventually the priest hears his confession and he is able to rest in peace.

What do ghosts look like?

The Byland ghost stories include some wonderfully gruesome descriptions of the ghosts' appearances. They are clearly envisioned as decaying corpses, rather like modern zombies. In Story III, the ghost speaks not with his tongue but from the inside of his bowels, which are hollow and echoing like an empty cask. The shortest tale, Story V, tells of a man who witnesses a woman carrying a ghost on her back, when ‘he saw the hands of the woman sink deeply into the flesh of the ghost as though the flesh were rotten and not solid but phantom flesh’.

The appearance of these ghosts was clearly influenced by the art of the period. In Story II, the ghost appears ‘in the likeness of a man of great stature, horrible and thin, like one of the dead kings in pictures’—a reference to the popular imagery of the Three Living and the Three Dead Kings.

Medieval miniature of three living kings confronted by three dead kings
A miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead Kings, from the De Lisle Psalter, England (East Anglia), c. 1308–c. 1340: Arundel MS 83, f. 127v (detail)

However, the Byland ghosts are also able to shape-shift and they appear in such assorted forms as: a horse, a revolving hay-cock with a light in the middle, a raven with sparks of fire shooting from its sides, a dog, a she-goat, a bullock without a mouth or eyes or ears, and a revolving piece of canvas (perhaps a precursor to the classic white sheet?).

What should you do if you meet a ghost?

The best thing to do in this situation is to talk to the ghost and find out what it wants. Ghosts aren’t able to speak to living people unless someone conjures them, which involves calling them to speak in the name of God. But if you are planning on meeting with ghosts, you may wish to bring protection. In Story II, when Snowball the tailor goes to keep an appointment with a ghost, he draws a magic circle around himself and uses an array of amulets.

A medieval picture of a necromancer in a magic circle
A picture of a necromancer in a magic circle, from John Lydgate’s The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century: Cotton MS Tiberius A VII/1, f. 44r (detail)

The worst thing you can do if you meet a ghost is to try to resist it. Snowball the tailor finds that his attempts to repel the ghost with his sword are completely ineffectual: it just feels like he’s striking a peat-stack. In Story IX, a ghost follows a man for 80 miles, throws him over a hedge and catches him on the other side. When the man finally speaks to the ghost, it tells him ‘If you’d conjured me in the first place, I wouldn’t have hurt you’.

How do you get rid of a ghost?

The best way to get rid of a ghost is to help it out. In most of the stories, the ghosts will quietly rest in peace once their unfinished business has been resolved. However, some ghosts are more troublesome. Story IV tells of the particularly malevolent ghost of James Tankerlay, rector of Cold Kirby, who walks from his grave at night and blows out the eye of his former mistress. The monks of Byland Abbey take action by having his corpse exhumed and cast into the present-day popular wild swimming spot, Lake Gormire.

Several other stories also hint that ghosts are averse to water: in Story I, the ghost will not cross the river, and in Story II, the ghost screams at the suggestion of meeting by Hodge Beck. This trope of supernatural creatures being unable to cross water has persisted into modern literature such as Dracula and Lord of the Rings.

A medieval miniature of a lady encountering the figure of death in a graveyard
A miniature of Death and the lady, from a Book of Hours, France, c. 1480-90: Harley MS 2865, f. 86r

The Byland ghost stories give us a glimpse of the kinds of tales that were probably once widespread but were rarely written down. They reveal medieval people’s very real fear of death and the uncertainties of what lay beyond, but also a surprising compassion for the undead.

So next time you hear something go bump in the night, don’t be afraid. Chances are the ghost won’t try to throw you over a hedge or do anything more sinister—it just needs a willing ear and a helping hand.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further reading

For the Latin text, see:

M.R. James, 'Twelve Medieval Ghost-Stories', The English Historical Review, 37 (1922), pp. 413-22.

For English translations, see:

A.J. Grant, 'Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories', The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 27 (1924), pp. 363-79.

Byland Abbey ghost stories project, Saint Anselm College.

21 October 2020

Angels in Manuscripts

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Angels pop up all over the place in medieval manuscripts, from Books of Hours to handbooks on magic. They are key players in Old and New Testament stories and feature in decorative borders. Join us for a tour of some of the wonderful images of angels in British Library manuscripts and the many varied contexts in which they appear.


An illustrated treatise by Francesc Eiximenis discusses the properties of angels, for instance ‘How an angelic spirit has no body and yet it can take on corporeal form by entering a body’ and the characteristics of good and bad angels. Each man and woman must choose between the angels’ path of goodness and the evil ways of the devil, as shown in this miniature below.

Illuminated manuscript with an picture of a guardian angel guiding a man away from the devil
A guardian angel guides a man away from the devil, in the Livre des anges, a French translation of Francesc Eiximenis, Llibre dels Àngels: Sloane MS 3049, f. 27r

The Breviari d’Amour, an encyclopaedic work in the Catalan language with the emphasis on theological and courtly traditions, contains a section on the offices or tasks of angels, which include seeing off the devil, interceding with Christ for humanity and carrying souls to Heaven. 

An angel brings food and a jug of wine to Ezekiel (above), and two angels carry the soul of a dying man to heaven while a devil retreats (below)
An angel brings food and a jug of wine to Ezekiel (above), and two angels carry the soul of a dying man to heaven while a devil retreats (below), Matfré Ermengau of Béziers's Breviari d'Amour: Yates Thompson MS 31, f. 40r

Angels in the Old Testament

Angels play a leading role in some of the best-known stories in both the Old and New Testaments. In Genesis, when Adam and Eve are banished from Paradise for eating the forbidden fruit, an angel with a flaming sword bars the gate to the garden and they are forced out into the world where they have to work hard for their livelihood.

The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden
Adam and Eve banished from Eden; an Angel stands, sword in hand, barring the gate; Adam digs and Eve spins, The Holkham Picture Bible: Add MS 47682, f. 4v

In the Old Testament story of Jacob, grandson of Abraham, he has a vision of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels climbing up and down, and he hears God’s voice blessing him from above. In his old age, returning home to the land of Canaan after a long exile, he wrestles with an angel all night, remaining unbeaten, and receives a blessing, being given the name ‘Israel’. These two episodes are illustrated as part of a prefatory set of images from the Bible in the Omne Bonum, an alphabetical encyclopedia of general knowledge written by James le Palmer, Clerk of the Exchequer in c. 1360.

Jacob's dream (above), and Jacob wrestling the angel (below)
Jacob's dream (above), and Jacob wrestling the angel (below), Omne Bonum: Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f. 3v

Angels and the Birth of Christ

The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the most important in the medieval church calendar. Pictures of the Angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary to announce that she will give birth to Christ are found in Books of Hours, Missals, Psalters and Bibles. A search using the term ‘Annunciation’ in the ‘Image description’ field of our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts produces 166 results, one of the earliest being the Echternach Gospels from the mid-11th century, where a full-page illumination of this scene precedes the Gospel of Matthew.

The Annunciation
The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary at the Annunciation, the Echternach Gospels: Egerton MS 608, f. 20r

Angels sometimes appear in scenes of the Nativity, including this charming depiction of a helpful angel preparing a bath for the newborn Christ in the stable, while the baby plays with the donkey, Mary rests, and Joseph looks on with his arms crossed. This is just one example of how useful angels can be to have around.

A Nativity scene in a Book of Hours
The Nativity, at the beginning of the prayers for the hour of Prime in the Hours of the Virgin: Sloane MS 2468, f. 51r

Angels in Revelation

Angels play a key role as the agents of God’s plan for the end of the world in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. They guide John in his vision and bring about disasters on earth: seven angels are given seven trumpets to blow, causing a series of cataclysmic events, and later, seven angels use seven censers to pour out plagues on earth.

Two tiered manuscript illumination: Christ enthroned and the seven angels with trumpets (above); an angel with a censer (below)
Christ enthroned and the seven angels with trumpets (above); an angel with a censer (below) (Revelation 8:2-5), the Silos Apocalypse: Add MS 11695, f. 126r

In Revelation, a war takes place in heaven between the forces of good, led by the archangel Michael and the evil followers of the dragon, or the devil. The Tiberius Psalter from mid-11th century Winchester contains a colour outline drawing of St Michael defeating the dragon, as part of a series of scenes from the Bible.

St Michael defeats the devil in the Tiberius Psalter
St Michael defeats the dragon (Revelation 12), the ‘Tiberius Psalter’: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 16r

Angels in saints lives

Two of the leading English saints, Cuthbert and Guthlac, were visited by angels, as shown in their illustrated hagiographies. According to the Venerable Bede’s account of his life, St Cuthbert, who became bishop of Lindisfarne, was visited in his youth by an angel disguised as a weary traveller. In this scene, Cuthbert has seated the traveller at his table and is washing his feet, showing Christ-like humility. Here the artist has cleverly dressed the figure in the hooded cloak of a traveller or pilgrim, but has included angels’ wings to show his true nature.

Cuthbert washes the feet of an angel in disguise
Cuthbert washes the feet of an angel in disguise, from Chapter 7 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert: Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 17v

The life of Guthlac, the Mercian hermit-saint, is told in a series of roundels on a parchment roll produced in Lincolnshire in c. 1200. He builds a cell on the island of Crowland, where he is visited by an angel and St Bartholemew.

An angel and St Bartholomew speaking to St Guthlac
An angel and St Bartholomew speaking to St Guthlac, The Guthlac Roll: Harley Roll Y 6

Good and Bad Angels

As Revelation shows, not all angels are benign. In the Divine Comedy, when Dante reaches paradise with Beatrice, they see the Archangels Michael and Raphael battling the bad angels (who fell from grace with Lucifer) and casting them into hell.

Beatrice, hovering above a kneeling Dante, gestures towards the Trinity, while the Archangels fight the fallen angels
Beatrice, hovering above a kneeling Dante, gestures towards the Trinity, while the Archangels fight the fallen angels, Divina Commedia: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 181r

Beliefs about angels were not always sanctioned by the Church as they could sometimes cross over into the occult. A book of magic from the 16th century known as the Sworn Book of Honorius has a section on how to summon heavenly intermediaries so that they will impart knowledge of all things to the user. Both good and bad angels are pictured and named on this page. The images themselves were believed to have magical properties.

The red angels of Mars and the golden angels of the sun
The red angels of Mars, Samahel, Satyhel, Ylurahyhel and Amabyhel and the golden angels of the Sun, Raphael, Cashael, Daryhel and Haurathaphel, in The Sworn Book of Honorius: Royal MS 17 A XLII, f. 68v

Good and bad, useful and militant, it's clear that angels hold an important place in medieval illumination. Explore more amazing images on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and Digitised Manuscripts sites.

Chantry Westwell

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06 October 2020

Early medieval interlace – a distinctive or ubiquitous feature?

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Regular readers of this blog are likely familiar with splendid examples of ‘Insular’ art — the art of the islands of Britain and Ireland from the 7th to 9th centuries. The iconic Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the most well-known, but you can also admire several examples on the webspace for the recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

Manuscript page in two columns with large decorated initial A in black, red, and green ink.
Decorated initial ‘A’ at the beginning of Book 3 of Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum; Southern England (Canterbury?), c. 800-850; Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 60v.

As is clear from this initial from the Tiberius Bede, one of the main decorative elements of Insular art is the incorporation of delicately drawn interlacing knotwork designs. The inside of the letter is decorated with interlacing ribbons on a black ink background. The tongue of the beast’s head at the top of the letter also interweaves with itself. Patterns like this are still closely associated with Irish, Scottish, and Welsh cultural identity, often called ‘Celtic knotwork’.

Intricate interlace designs are also an important element of the style of manuscript art known as ‘Franco-Saxon’. ‘Franco’ refers to Francia (the kingdom of the Franks), where this style originated. The ‘Saxon’ part of the term refers to the incorporation of Insular decorative motifs (when this term was coined in the late 19th century Insular art was often called ‘Hiberno-Saxon’). In general, the Franco-Saxon style is characterised by a fusion of motifs based on Insular models and features of layout, decoration, and script of the Carolingian manuscript tradition. The Carolingian dynasty seized control over the area roughly corresponding to modern-day France from 751, expanded the kingdom, and ruled (intermittently) until 987.

Interlace is usually described as one of the most defining Insular components of the Franco-Saxon style. Interlace decoration has also been seen as evidence of the spread of this style to the scriptorium of Saint-Martin of Tours during the second half of the 9th century. The Benedictine abbey of Saint-Martin of Tours was one of the most influential centres of manuscript production in the Carolingian empire in the early decades of the century. However, in 853 Tours was attacked by one of the Norse war bands who carried out raids along the rivers of France. To help restore the Abbey’s destroyed library, books from other Carolingian centres were sent to the monks of Tours. We know that at least one of those manuscripts was a Franco-Saxon manuscript from Saint-Amand, one of the main centres of the Franco-Saxon style.

Opening page of the Gospel of Matthew, with a large ligature LI in gold and colours and the rest of the text written in gold.
Decorated ligature ‘LI’, (Liber), beginning of the Gospel of Matthew; Tours, c. 850-900; Add MS 11849, f. 27r.

Consequently, the decoration in manuscripts made at Tours in the decades after the attack of 853 has been described as incorporating the Franco-Saxon style into the diverse and well-developed Tours style. This Gospel book from Tours, digitised as part of the Polonsky project (Add MS 11849), is one example of this. The golden ribbons that both form the outline of the ligature ‘LI’ (Liber) (book) as well as interlaced designs within the letter and at their terminals, have been compared to decorated initials in well-known Franco-Saxon manuscripts.

But there is a problem with using the presence of interlace as a distinguishing feature of an early medieval style. When you start to look at early medieval manuscripts from across northern Europe, you quickly notice that interlacing knotwork decoration is an omnipresent decorative element.

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a initial D in red and brown ink.
Detail of decorated initial ’D’ (Dixit), Cassiodorus, Expositio psalmorum; Southern Netherlands, Stavelot (now in Belgium), c. 850-875; Add MS 16962, f. 55v.

For example, in the area that is now Belgium and the Southern Netherlands, interlace in a slightly different variant was also common during this period. Here it is incorporated within the stem of the initial ‘D’ as well as in a design within the letter, in red and brown ink.

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a large initial D with interlace and beasts’ head decoration with details in green.
Detail of decorated initial ‘D’ (Disciplina), Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae; Western France, c. 800-900; Harley MS 2686, f. 5r.

Similarly, interlace is also present in contemporary manuscripts that were most likely made in Brittany, which was never incorporated fully into the Carolingian empire. Perhaps that is why manuscript art from this area often continued to resemble Frankish manuscripts created before the spread of Carolingian influence (i.e. before c. 750).

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a large initial D in brown ink with some black or dark blue details.
Detail of decorated initial ‘D’ (Dominus) (Lord), at beginning of Liber Scintillarum (Book of Sparks) by the so-called Defensor of Ligugé; Northern Italy, c. 775-825; Cotton MS Nero A II, f. 45r.

Further south, in Northern Italy, early medieval manuscripts also feature interlace in their decorated initials. This is apparent in a late 8th-early 9th manuscript (now Cotton MS Nero A II), which has a large initial ‘D’, with its ascender swooping to the left. The letter incorporates knotwork patterns within its rounded bowl, while another interlace design of thicker ribbons continues and reaches inside the bowl.

Insular artists, responsible for creations like the Lindisfarne Gospels, undeniably mastered the basic principles of interlacing knotwork and created incredibly intricate and imaginative designs. As a type of pattern in itself, however, it was such a ubiquitous feature of early medieval European art that its presence in a manuscript does not necessarily indicate specifically Insular influence.

Emilia Henderson

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08 August 2020

Ludicrous figures in the margin

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‘Hours of the Virgin, decorated with shields of arms, and ludicrous figures in the margin’, was the description of Harley MS 6563 provided in the 1808 catalogue of the Harley Collection. Our catalogue records have come on a long way since then, but the lively marginal antics in this little Book of Hours still stand out. Already popular with viewers on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, they can now be appreciated in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Harley MS 6563 was made around 1320-1330 in Southern England, perhaps London, probably for a woman owner. Originally the manuscript must have been extensively illuminated, but sadly all the pages containing decorated initials or miniatures were removed in the early modern period. Yet almost all of its remaining pages feature drawings from the topsy-turvy world of medieval marginalia. In honour of its digitisation, let’s dive down the parchment rabbit hole to explore some of its marginal subjects and their possible meanings.

A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit running into a hole and emerging the other side.
A rabbit runs into a hole on one side of the page and emerges on the other side: Harley MS 6563, f. 33r-v

While endlessly inventive, this kind of playful marginalia found in manuscripts of the 13th-14th centuries tended to draw on certain reccurring themes which were common to medieval art of other media such as stained-glass windows, wall paintings, misericords and stone carvings, as well as popular literature of the time. The meanings of these themes are much debated and there are no definite answers, but this uncertainty makes marginalia all the more fun to puzzle over.

Crafty foxes

One much-loved character who makes a prominent appearance in the margins of this Book of Hours is the crafty fox, trickster and master of disguise, who was well-known to medieval audiences from the Renard the Fox stories and other animal fables. Two double-page scenes in the manuscript show a fox preaching to a flock of birds. The fox leans on a pilgrim’s staff and gestures emphatically while the birds gaze on in gullible wonder. Later in the manuscript we see the conclusion of the tale: a fox running away with an unlucky member of the congregation in his jaws.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox preaching to a flock of birds.
A fox preaching to a flock of birds: Harley MS 6563, ff. 54v-55r
A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox running with a bird in its mouth.
A fox runs away with a bird: Harley MS 6563, f. 6v

In another double-page scene the fox appears as a schoolmaster, birch and rod in hand, teaching a dog pupil who holds a book up to his face as though attempting to read. As with his preacher guise, the fox once again assumes a position of authority to misguide the ignorant and unwary.

Such scenes might be understood as social satires commenting on the corruption and folly of the human world. There may be a lesson to be learned here, as the Nun’s Priest concludes his retelling of a Renard the Fox story in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘Taketh the moralite, goode men’ (take up the moral, good men)—although he is conveniently vague about what the moral actually is.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox teaching a dog.
A fox teacher instructs a dog pupil: Harley MS 6563, ff. 22v-23r

Animal musicians

One particularly well-represented subject in this Book of Hours is animal musicians. A whole musical troupe of cats, pigs, dogs and rabbits is shown in concert over a series of five leaves in the Penitential Psalms, and others also appear throughout the manuscript.

The animal musicians probably belong to the popular theme in medieval marginalia of ‘the world turned upside down’. The idea that animals are unable to appreciate music was commonplace in the Middle Ages. A proverb inherited from classical antiquity via Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy referred to someone who fails to understand something as ‘the ass which cannot hear the lyre’. Similarly, a Middle English poem listing impossibilities includes, ‘whan swyn be conyng in al poyntes of musyke’ (when swine are knowledgeable in all points of music), as we might say ‘when pigs might fly’. The animal musicians might therefore represent the impossible becoming reality.

Details of animals playing musical instruments from the marginalia of Harley MS 6563
A cat playing a fiddle (f. 40r), a cat playing bagpipes (f. 40v), a boar playing a portative organ (f. 41r), a boar playing a harp (f. 41v), a dog playing a hurdy gurdy (f. 43r), a cat playing a psaltery (f. 43v), a rabbit playing a drum (f. 44r), a rabbit playing a trumpet (f. 44v): Harley MS 6563

Fighting snails

Another example of the inversion of reality is the ever-popular subject of figures fighting snails. In medieval marginalia, snails are notoriously hostile, as we see in this Book of Hours where a man attempts to fend off a large advancing snail with a club. On the following page, another man has cast down his sword and shield and begs for mercy before a ferocious mollusc.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a man with a club fending off a snail.
A man with a club fends off a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 61v-62r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of an armed man surrendering to a snail.
An armed man surrenders to a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 62v-63r

Warrior women

But if anyone is able to triumph over such a formidable adversary, it is probably this naked woman warrior who is shown charging with a lance towards a snail. As part of the reversal of the social order in medieval margins, women, who were often expected to be subservient in medieval society, are sometimes shown as powerful militants and victors. Similarly, on another page a man surrenders to an armed woman.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a naked woman fighting a snail.
A naked woman warrior vs a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 86v-87r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a man surrendering to an armed woman.
A man surrenders to an armed woman: Harley MS 6563, ff. 63v-64r

Battle of the cats and mice

Role reversal is also the theme of the series of images for which this manuscript is best known: the battle of the cats and the mice. Over an eight-page narrative sequence, an epic war unfolds. First the mice besiege the cats’ castle, hurling rocks from a trebuchet and attempting to scale its walls. Then the cats attack the mouse castle, one firing a crossbow and another being crushed by a falling rock from the battlements. Next, a cat archer and a mouse lancer go head-to-head, and finally the mouse succeeds in impaling the unfortunate cat.

This triumph of the mice over the cats may also be understood as social commentary. In Boccaccio's Decameron, the artist and trickster Bruno paints a fresco of a battle of cats and mice in the house of the foolish doctor Simone. The doctor considers it a very fine piece, little knowing that Bruno and his friend Buffalmacco are actually swindling him. In the story, the cat’s defeat by the mice may reflect the wealthy doctor’s humiliation by the artists.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of mice besieging a cat in a castle.
Mice besiege cat castle: Harley MS 6563, ff. 71v-72r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat with a crossbow attacking mice in a castle.
Cats besiege mouse castle: Harley MS 6563, ff. 72v-73r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat with a bow and a mouse lancer taking aim at each other.
Cat archer and mouse lancer take aim at one another: Harley MS 6563, ff. 73v-74r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat impaled by a mouse lancer, begging for mercy.
Mouse warrior has impaled the cat who begs for mercy: Harley MS 6563, ff. 74v-75r

Rabbit huntsmen

The idea of the hunted becoming the hunter also underlies the manuscript’s images of a rabbit huntsman, who in one instance takes aim at a very sorry-looking spotty dog. The same theme of killer rabbits taking revenge on the hounds is found in the margins of the Smithfield Decretals.

A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit setting out and returning from a hunt.
A rabbit hunter sets out with a full quiver of arrows and returns with his quarry: Harley MS 6563, f. 20r-v
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit hunter aiming at a dog with a bow and arrow.
A rabbit archer takes aim at a spotty dog: Harley MS 6563, ff. 96v-97r

The rich man and Lazarus

Yet there is also religious imagery with serious moral messages, such as scenes of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar from the Gospel of Luke (16:19–31). First we see three fashionably dressed diners at a feast shooing away a beggar on the facing page while dogs lick the sores on his legs. On the following pages, the rich man is shown on his deathbed accompanied by a devil, while the beggar is shown dying outdoors with an angel at his side.

This parable is also an instance of role reversal in that the rich man suffers torments in death, whereas the beggar is received into comfort, yet here the message is clearly sincere. That at least one of the manuscript’s owners found it disturbingly real is suggested by the way in which they attempted to rub out the figures of the devil and angel.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of the rich man's banquet and the beggar Lazarus.
The rich man’s banquet and Lazarus the beggar: Harley MS 6563, ff. 10v-11r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of the death of the rich man and Lazarus.
The death of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar: Harley MS 6563, ff. 11v-12r

To us it may seem strange to place scenes of cartoon violence alongside religious imagery with such urgent moral messages. But for medieval audiences, perhaps this was all part of a visual culture in which the sacred and profane, the entertaining and didactic, and the ludicrous and meaningful were more intricately intertwined than today.

Eleanor Jackson

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